Rwandan armed forces kill 10 Belgian peacekeeping officers in a successful effort to discourage international intervention in their genocide that had begun only hours earlier. In less than three months, Hutu extremists who controlled Rwanda murdered an estimated 800,000 innocent civilian Tutsis in the worst episode of genocide since World War II. The Tutsis, a minority group that made up about 10 percent of Rwanda’s population, received no assistance from the international community, although the United Nations later conceded that a mere 5,000 soldiers deployed at the outset would have stopped the wholesale slaughter.
The immediate roots of the 1994 genocide went back a few years. In the early 1990s, President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, began using anti-Tutsi rhetoric to consolidate his own power among the Hutus. Beginning in October 1990, there were several massacres of hundreds of Tutsis. Although the two ethnic groups were very similar, sharing the same language and culture for centuries, the law required registration based on ethnicity. The government and army began to assemble the Interahamwe (meaning “those who attack together” or “those who stand together”) and prepared for the elimination of the Tutsis by arming Hutus with guns and machetes. In January 1994, the United Nations forces in Rwanda warned that larger massacres were imminent.
On April 6, 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, killing him and several of his close advisers. It is believed that the attack was carried out by Hutu extremists who believed the president was about to sign the Arusha peace accords, not the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi military organization stationed outside the country at the time, who the Hutus blamed. In any event, Hutu extremists in the military, led by Colonel Bagosora, immediately went into action, murdering Tutsis and moderate Hutus within hours of the plane crash.
The Belgian peacekeepers were killed the following day, a key factor in the withdrawal of U.N. forces from Rwanda. Within days, the radio stations in Rwanda were broadcasting appeals to the Hutu majority to kill all Tutsis in the country. The army and the national police directed the slaughter, sometimes threatening Hutu civilians when persuasion didn’t work. Thousands of innocent people were hacked to death with machetes by their neighbors. Despite the horrific crimes, the international community, especially the United States, hesitated to take any action. They wrongly ascribed the genocide to chaos amid tribal war.
It was left to the RPF to begin an ultimately successful military campaign for control of Rwanda. By the summer, the RPF had defeated the Hutu forces and driven them out of the country and into several neighboring nations. However, by that time, 75 percent of the Tutsis living in Rwanda had been murdered.